NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Any other AIG ( AIG) bulls out there? AIG is giant and murky. It still owes the government some $70 billion, but nonetheless reported a first-quarter profit. Most of us mortals merely throw up our hands when trying to determine whether the company's shares are worth anything, but for a savvy investor looking to make a killing, mightn't it be worthwhile to take a hard look? One investor who did just that is Bruce Berkowitz, founder of Fairholme Capital Management and Morningstar's fund manager of the decade. Berkowitz started buying up shares of AIG last year, he told Bloomberg News in March, saying "it's still a good company with a good global brand," and that he expects to be a long-term shareholder, as he thinks AIG's recovery will take a long time. A look at AIG's top shareholders shows that Fairholme is far and away the largest, with 25 million shares worth roughly $850 million, accounting for 19% of the insurer's outstanding stock. Next in line is Starr International Co., a former AIG affiliate controlled by longtime AIG boss Maurice "Hank" Greenberg. However, Greenberg struck a deal with UBS ( UBS) to unload 10 million of his 13 million shares in four transactions, the first of which will occur three years from now, according to a regulatory filing. Under the complex deal, Greenberg is protected if shares drop below $31.22, but his upside is also limited. While he will see some additional benefit if AIG shares climb to $46.83, all the gains beyond that price would go to UBS, according to Reuters. UBS, then, may be placing a large bullish bet on AIG, though Reuters stated the bank was "effectively" able to buy the shares at $27.82--a 20% discount to their closing price on March 19, the day the deal was struck. Perhaps UBS is merely betting that it can parcel out the shares to index fund buyers or lend them to short sellers, since they got them at such a steep discount. A UBS spokeswoman declined to comment on the bank's strategy regarding the AIG exposure it took on via the deal with Greenberg.
After Fairholme, which owns 19% and Starr/UBS, which own 10%, the next three largest investors, Vanguard Group, BlackRock Institutional Trust Co. and State Street Global Advisors, all appear to own AIG as part of an index, and all the remaining shareholders own less than 2% of the shares. British Columbia Investment Corp. (BCIC), for example, owns 2.2 million shares, having added to its stake in the first quarter. Still, that stake is worth less than $70 million -- not a very big bet, considering the firm's nearly $21 billion in assets. BCIC declined to comment on its investment. Thomson Reuters lists BCIC as an index-oriented investor, and both AIG's 29th largest shareholder, Parametric Portfolio Associates and its seventh-largest, INTECH Investment Management, said they invest based on computer models and don't take views on individual companies. "Obviously I've heard of AIG. Who hasn't? But we don't have any particular opinions on it. It's simply a function of the way that the model's mathematical process analyzes and suggests that this is what we should be owning," says Adrian Banner, co-CIO of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based INTECH. A conversation with one executive at a hedge fund listed among AIG shareholders suggests that the filings intended to let us know which money managers are buying or selling a company's shares aren't worth much. The hedge fund manager says it would be wrong to characterize him as being long AIG, as he has offset his long position with a short one. The hedge fund manager, who declined to be identified, says he bought AIG shares earlier this year in order to make it easier for him to short them at some point in the future, when he fears it may be difficult to borrow the shares to execute his short. He would not say whether he is net short or merely neutral on AIG at present, but he says he believes AIG shares will eventually be worthless. The hedge fund manager says that though AIG has been reporting a profit, that does not account for the fact that it stopped paying interest to the U.S. Treasury on its $50 billion preferred stake 15 months ago. Though he thinks there are "scenarios" where AIG can repay the government, he does not think those scenarios will be good for shareholders.
For example, if the government were to try to convert its preferred shares into new equity as it has done with Citigroup ( C), he believes the conversion price would have to be about $1. The Treasury would then need to sell those shares at a high enough price to get back its original investment. While he concedes that may be possible, he doesn't believe AIG bulls have accounted for how dilutive the transaction would be. Regarding Berkowitz's long position, the hedge fund investor said Berkowitz has not publicly made a strong case for AIG, beyond merely saying it's a good company. "What does that mean--it's a good company? Does he just buy every stock where he thinks it's a good company? Is that his investment thesis?" the hedge fund manager said. A spokeswoman for Berkowitz said he was travelling in Asia and was not available for an interview. One thing that impressed me, as I worked my way down the list of supposed AIG shareholders, calling to ask them to explain the rationale for their investment, was how virtually meaningless these disclosures were. Whatever the original intent was for requiring institutional investors to disclose when they take equity stakes in a public company, it was lost long ago. Just because an investor is listed as a large shareholder, who is to say that that have not entered into another trade -- perhaps using a credit default swap, or some other instrument that doesn't need to be disclosed -- to offset their investment. John Coffee, a securities law professor at Columbia University, wrote me via email that "the pending Dodd-Frank bill gives the SEC much expanded authority to adopt rules that increase transparency over short sales" and reporting by large investors. "Whether and how the SEC will use that authority is less clear," Coffee added. Still, going through the shareholder filings is never a fruitless exercise. Even if, as is likely, it is part of an index investing strategy, it is still interesting to note, for example, that Goldman Sachs ( GS) owns 69,000 shares of AIG. Given the public furor over the fact that Goldman was repaid billions at 100 cents on the dollar by the government as part of the AIG bailout, you would think Goldman might want to wash its hands of that stake--even if it is worth just over $2 million. A Goldman spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.
And then we have a reminder that AIG CEO Robert Benmosche, who has hinted that he might deliver value for common stock holders, has a strong incentive to do so. He recently picked up some 13,000 AIG shares, according to June 10 filing, bring his total to nearly 56,000 AIG shares, worth about $1.9 million. A spokesman declined to comment on whether Benmosche's stake is part of his pay package or whether he was buying shares in the open market. Benmosche's 2010 pay package includes "a maximum" of $4 million in stock, which is subject to various restrictions and vesting periods, according to AIG's 2010 proxy statement. -- Written by Dan Freed in New York.